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Some Key Facts We've Learned About Police Shootings Over The Past Year

Makeshift memorials to Walter Scott sprouted up at the scene of his fatal encounter with Michael Slager, the police officer who shot him in the back as he ran away following a routine traffic stop.
David Goldman
Makeshift memorials to Walter Scott sprouted up at the scene of his fatal encounter with Michael Slager, the police officer who shot him in the back as he ran away following a routine traffic stop.

We've done a lot of writing and reporting at Code Switch over the past year on deadly police shootings of unarmed black people, cases that have become such a part of our landscape that they have a tendency to melt into each other. Indeed, sometimes the pattern of facts seems to barely change: Just last fall, we followed the story of an unarmed black man in South Carolina who was shot following a police traffic stop. The officer in that shooting, like Michael Slager — the officer who shot Walter Scott in the back as he ran away after a traffic stop — was later fired and arrested once the video of that encounter surfaced and contradicted his initial report.

While names and places change, the backdrop against which these stories play out does not. We decided to pull together what we've learned along the way, along with some thoughtful commentary from other outlets about this case and the larger questions it raises.

What Video Shows — And Doesn't Show

So, are these ugly encounters between police and civilians becoming more common, or is technology simply making them easier to capture? It's surprisingly difficult to tell — there's no comprehensive national database on either police use of force or on police-related deaths. The Justice Department can ask the thousands of police agencies across the country to share their numbers, but it can't compel them to do so. And since those agencies often have their own definitions of what constitutes use of force, it's hard to make useful comparisons.

From 2003 to 2009, the Justice Department found that 4,813 people died while a member of law enforcement was trying to arrest or restrain them, or shortly thereafter. How you look at those (again, imperfect) numbers is largely a matter of framing, as we've previously reported:

"If you're looking at the universe of all arrests, it feels like arrest-related deaths are exceedingly rare. The report noted that those 4,800 arrest-related deaths came during a period in which the FBI estimated that there were nearly 98 million arrests made nationally. That's .005 percent of all arrests, some of which will be deemed justifiable homicides.

"But if you consider these numbers simply as a tally of arrest-related deaths by themselves, it happens frequently enough that any such case might make a headline every single day. A measure compiled by Colorlines and the Chicago Reporter in 2007 found that nearly 9,500 people across the country were shot by the police between 1980 and 2005 — 'an average of nearly one fatal shooting per day.' "

And while we still don't know much about police-related deaths, we do know a good deal more about traffic stops like the one that preceded the fatal encounter between Scott and Slager. For black drivers, those stops often appear to be pretext for police to search for some other presumed crime.

Here's Slate's Jamelle Bouie:

"Simply put, Slager's stop of Scott — on an ordinary road in a sprawling Southern city — seems to fit a pattern identified by sociologists Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel in their massive study of traffic stops in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. [...]

"There are racial disparities in police stops — blacks are stopped twice as often as whites — but they aren't related to traffic safety offenses, in which cops exercise a little less discretion and violations are equal within groups. Where we see a difference — even after we adjust for driving time (on average, blacks drive more and longer than whites) — is in investigatory stops. In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations — driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal — which are used as pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Sanctioned by courts and institutionalized in most police departments, investigatory stops are aimed at 'suspicious' drivers and meant to stop crime, not traffic offenses. And as the authors note, 'virtually all of the wide racial disparity in the likelihood of being stopped is concentrated in one category of stops: discretionary stops for minor violations of the law.' "

When Can Police Use Deadly Force?

A lot of the particulars of the Walter Scott shooting line up eerily with the circumstances in Tennessee v. Garner, the 1985 Supreme Court case we've written about before that established parameters under which police might use deadly force.

In 1974, a wispy 15-year-old named Edward Garner, who had just broken into a home to steal a purse with $10 in it, was shot in the back of the head by a police officer as he tried to escape over a chain-link fence. The officer in that fatal shooting said he knew that Garner was unarmed, but he shot the teen anyway so that he couldn't get away. As we wrote in July:

"Garner's father sued the city and the officer, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1871, argued that his son's constitutional rights had been violated. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, and the justices were asked to decide whether deadly force could be used to stop someone fleeing from the police.

"The justices sided with Garner's father, and held that the police can't employ deadly force on a suspect who is running away. 'It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape,' Justice Byron White wrote in that majority opinion."

White went on: "It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead."

Besides that constitutional standard, police departments often have their own rules over when officers can use deadly force.

Another wrinkle: As the recent federal inquiry into Philadelphia's police department showed, there's often a significant gap between what officers understand the threshold for justifiable deadly force is — say, "fear for one's life" — and what either courts or local police agencies recognize as justifiable.

Will Bodycams Stop Incidents Like This From Happening?

After the Scott shooting, city officials in North Charleston saidthe police there would be equipped with body cameras to record their interactions with the public. The use of police bodycams has become popular in recent years, even as their effectiveness — in reliably recording these fraught encounters and preventing them from happening — is still very much an open question.

As we've written before, the push for putting cameras on police officers is often pegged to one study in Rialto, Calif., that saw striking results: After dozens of its officers began wearing them, complaints against the police dropped nearly 90 percent from the previous year. But as Fusion's Connie Fossi-Garcia and Dan Liebermanfound in an investigation of five other departments that used bodycams, there was the not-so-small issue of police cooperation:

"One key problem: officers control the record button. They decide when to turn on and off the cameras and have little to fear when violating department policies about recording, Fusion's analysis found. In many use of force incidents, camera footage doesn't exist, is only partially available, or can't be found. And when body cameras are turned on, the footage usually favors the officer's account, according to police, law enforcement experts and public defenders we spoke with."

Tracy Keesee — a retired police captain who now heads up the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles — told me in December that the effectiveness of bodycams comes with another big caveat: A camera is only effective so long as a police encounter goes relatively smoothly. But once things get hairy and an officer is tussling with a suspect, any footage quickly becomes shaky and less useful.

How About Diverse Policing?

Along with bodycams, there have been calls in the wake of these stories for police departments to be more representative of their communities. That's become an issue in North Charleston, too — the city is about half black, and black folks are the largest racial group in the city. But the police department is about 80 percent white.

[I]n any situation, we've given police officers extraordinary powers and wide latitude to 'stop criminals,' without spending a lot of time considering what we mean by 'criminals,' and how far we're willing to go to stop them.

But just like with bodycams, the effectiveness of a more diverse, representative police force comes with some pretty big qualifiers. A big one, Keesee told me, is that black officers need to be in senior positions to actually influence the way departments go about their jobs. ("If you're a patrol officer on the street — and we all start in patrol — you don't have any say on any policies or how they're enforced," Keesee said. "If your command staff says that your priorities are this, then you do this.")

And as Keesee said, any officer who moved up the ranks would have had to do so by acculturating to the ethos of his or her department. Put another way: Black cops are still cops, and in communities where black folks and the police have a tense relationship, the race of the officer in a testy encounter isn't likely to matter much.

The Walter Scott case provides a telling example. Over the weekend, the National Bar Association, a group of black judges and lawyers,called for the arrest of Clarence Habersham, the second officer at the scene, who is black and can be seen in one of the videos directly following the shooting. The association said Habersham "deliberately left material facts out of his report" after the shooting. According to the Charleston Post and Courier, Habersham's supplement to Slager's initial incident report after the shooting was just two lines long, and "said very little."

It's not clear why Habersham did not elaborate on what he saw at the scene of the shooting.

The Stakes For Those Who Watch

The New Yorker's Philip Gourevtich asks a straightforward question: Should we watch and share the video of Scott being gunned down?

So, as a piece of evidence, the video did a great public service. It made inescapable a horrific murder, an act of outrageous injustice by a putative guardian of the law. Does that mean we all need to see it? Gourevtich writes:

"It is easy not to click on a video, easy to choose not to watch Walter Scott's murder. But making that choice is now inescapable. So the questions that come with it are inescapable, too. For instance: If you're being shown this video, what wouldn't you be shown? And also: If you're being shown this because black lives matter, should you decline to look because black deaths matter, too?"

And here's his colleague, Amy Davidson:

"Video has come to be seen as a near-panacea, although some privacy rules might be needed before turning every policeman into a roving video recorder. But cameras alone won't solve the problem. In Cleveland, the death of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a police officer, was captured on video, but investigations in that case have progressed slowly. The choking of Eric Garner, on Staten Island, was taped, but no indictment followed. If North Charleston avoids becoming another Ferguson — a place where a police shooting exposes and accelerates a broader breakdown in civic trust — it will be due not just to the video but also to the manner in which [Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mayor Keith Summey] responded to it."

After the death of Eric Garner in New York City last summer, Monica Potts, a journalist who used to be a civilian investigator of police misconduct in New York City, wrote for us that the shock that these videos elicit is because the broader public is seeing, for the first time, what police encounters really look like for so many Americans.

Potts said that while her job required her to suss out more specific questions like whether an officer accused of roughing up a civilian was justified in doing so, "the questions that [these videos of police] inspire are deeper." Those questions, she says, distract us from wrestling with larger, thornier ones, like what we gain from presence of police officers for small infractions and "quality of life" crimes. She adds:

"Adding police officers to any situation is going to increase the likelihood of violence, and there's nothing we can do to change that except reconsider the conditions under which we add police. That's because, in any situation, we've given police officers extraordinary powers and wide latitude to 'stop criminals,' without spending a lot of time considering what we mean by 'criminals,' and how far we're willing to go to stop them."

One of the throughlines in this grim litany — the Michael Browns and Eric Garners and Ramarley Grahams and Walter Scotts — is that their encounters with police were ostensibly for minor infractions. Michael Brown allegedly stole cigarellos from a convenience store. Eric Garner was selling loosies on the corner. Ramarley Graham had weed in his pocket. Walter Scott may have been scared by a child support payment or perhaps because he didn't have registration for the car he was driving.

It's crucial to remember that all these calamities play out against a backdrop of falling — even record-low — crime. As the anxieties around the kinds of crime that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s recedes, there's more space for us to ask what exactly it is we want our police to do, and whether stopping a jaywalker here or a person selling cigarettes there is worth introducing the prospect of deadly violence.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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